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Wood v. Fanslau

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division

October 29, 2018

Peter Wood, Plaintiff,
v.
Melissa Fanslau, Defendant.

          ORDER

          R. BRYAN HARWELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This is a negligence action arising out of an automobile collision between the parties. This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. See ECF No. 26. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part the motion.[1]

         Background

         On August 18, 2015, Plaintiff, Peter Wood, and Defendant, Melissa Fanslau, were driving southbound on Interstate 95 through Dillon County, South Carolina in their respective vehicles. Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. at 1; Compl. at ¶ 7 [ECF No. 1-1]; Answer at ¶ 7 [ECF No. 1-2]. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant made an improper lane change in her 2013 Hyundai sedan, striking Plaintiff's 2014 Volvo tractor-trailer and injuring Plaintiff. Compl. at ¶¶ 6-8.

         Defendant does not deny that her vehicle collided with Plaintiff's. Fanslau Dep. at 17:7-17 [ECF No. 26-3]. However, she does not recall the accident and believes she lost consciousness during or prior to the collision due to a medical condition. Def.'s Mem. in Opp'n at 1 [ECF No. 27]; Fanslau Dep. at 7:12-16, 10:5-15. The collision was witnessed by another driver, Jerome Watson, as he traveled behind the parties. Watson Dep. at 5:15-6:24, 10:15-17 [ECF No. 26-1]. In his deposition, Watson states that Defendant traveled in the left lane directly in front of him while Plaintiff traveled in the right lane. Watson Dep. at 5:17-6:4, 10:11-14. The parties do not dispute the respective positions of their vehicles before the collision. Wood Dep. at 22:19-22 [ECF Nos. 26-2 & 27-1]; Fanslau Dep. at 17:12-17. Watson states he observed Defendant attempt to move into the right lane, misjudge the speed of Plaintiff's tractor-trailer, and contact the left two wheels of Plaintiff's tractor-trailer, causing significant damage. Watson Dep. at 5:15-6:12; 7:6-8. In Plaintiff's deposition, he recounts the collision from the impact but did not observe the moments leading up to the collision. Wood Dep. at 16:10-17:10. Defendant disputes Watson's version of the collision, stating in her deposition that she believes she was in her lane of travel when the collision occurred. Fanslau Dep. at 17:18-21. Otherwise, she has no recollection of the actual collision due to her loss of consciousness. Fanslau Dep. at 18:2-13. Plaintiff also stated in his deposition that immediately after the accident, Defendant told him she had fallen asleep. Wood Dep. at 22:11-15.

         On July 17, 2017, Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant in the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas for Dillon County, bringing a cause of action for “negligence/gross negligence, ” seeking actual and punitive damages for “pain and suffering; medical expenses; trauma; loss of enjoyment of life; lost wages; permanent impairment; annoyance and inconvenience and travel and other damages[.]” Compl. at 2-3. In her answer, Defendant raises several defenses, including: (1) comparative negligence; (2) unexpected emergency; and (3) unavoidable accident. Answer at ¶¶ 15-20. On October 11, 2017, Defendant timely removed the case to federal court under diversity jurisdiction. See Notice of Removal [ECF No. 1]. On July 10, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant motion for summary judgment. On July 24, 2018, Defendant filed a response in opposition, and on July 31, 2018, Plaintiff filed a reply thereto. [ECF No. 28]. The matter is now ripe for the Court's consideration.

         Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Reyazuddin v. Montgomery Cty., Md., 789 F.3d 407, 413 (4th Cir. 2015); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) (“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”). The moving party has the burden of showing “there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). Once the movant makes this showing, the opposing party must “go beyond the pleadings” to evince “specific facts showing . . . a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324. A genuine issue of material fact-one “that might affect the outcome of the suit”-exists if, in viewing the record and all reasonable inferences drawn in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, a reasonable fact-finder could return a verdict for the non-movant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The non-moving party is required to submit evidence of specific facts by way of affidavits, depositions, interrogatories, or admissions to demonstrate the existence of a genuine and material factual issue for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. “[A]ll that is required is that sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citation omitted). However, “the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48.

         The Court should determine “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law. Id. at 251-52. The Court should not grant summary judgment “unless the entire record shows a right to judgment with such clarity as to leave no room for controversy and establishes affirmatively that the adverse party cannot prevail under any circumstances.” Campbell v. Hewitt, Coleman & Assocs, Inc., 21 F.3d 52, 55 (4th Cir. 1994) (citation omitted). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must not resolve disputed facts, weigh the evidence, Russell v. Microdyne Corp., 65 F.3d 1229, 1239 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted), or make determinations of credibility. Sosebee v. Murphy, 797 F.2d 179, 182 (4th Cir. 1986). Inferences “drawn from the underlying facts . . . must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962) (per curiam).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff moves for summary judgment[2] as to: (1) the issues of duty and breach, leaving proximate cause and damages for the jury; (2) Defendant's second defense of comparative negligence; (3) Defendant's third defense of unexpected emergency; and (4) Defendant's fourth defense of unavoidable accident. Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. at 1. In other words, Plaintiff asks the Court to definitively rule-prior to trial-first, in his favor on two of the four elements of his negligence/gross negligence claim, and second, to rule against Defendant on three of her defenses, challenging the evidentiary sufficiency of the defenses.

         I. Duty and Breach

         In South Carolina, to prevail on a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) a legal duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) a breach of that duty by a negligent act or omission; (3) the breach was the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury; and (4) damages sustained by the plaintiff. Andrade v. Johnson, 588 S.E.2d 588, 592 (S.C. 2003) (citation omitted). Gross negligence-“the failure to exercise slight care”-“is a relative term, and means the absence of care that is necessary under the circumstances.” Doe v. Greenville Cnty. Sch. Dist., 651 S.E.2d 305, 309 (S.C. 2007) (citations omitted). It is synonymously defined as “the intentional, conscious failure to do something which it is incumbent upon one to do or the doing of a thing intentionally that one ought not to do.” Id. (citation omitted).

         In a negligence action, “[t]he existence of a duty owed is a question of law” for the Court to decide. Houck v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Ins. Co., 620 S.E.2d 326, 329 (S.C. 2005) (citations omitted). In the context of an automobile collision, “[p]arties have a duty to keep a reasonable lookout to avoid hazards on the highway.” Fettler v. Gentner, 722 S.E.2d 26, 29 (S.C. Ct. App. 2012) (citing Thomasko v. Poole, 561 S.E.2d 597, 599 (S.C. 2002)). “Each driver must exercise due care under the circumstances.” Id. (citing Still v. Blake, 177 S.E.2d 469, 474 (S.C. 1970)); see also S.C. Code § 56-5-1520 (“A person shall not drive a vehicle on a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard to the actual and potential hazards then existing.”). When resolving issues of negligence and comparative negligence arising out of a collision between vehicles traveling in the same direction, the South Carolina Supreme Court has “held that a leading vehicle has no absolute legal position superior to that of the one following.” Id. (citing Still, 177 S.E.2d at 473-74). Generally, “the driver of the leading vehicle is required to make reasonable observations under the circumstances to determine that the particular movement of his vehicle, such as turning, ...


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